Real Salt Lake faces Portland for the final time during the regular season today with the top of the Western Conference not the only thing on the line. Also at stake: securing a playoff spot, bragging rights, pride, and perhaps even the Supporters Shield.
RSL will be without chief playmaker Javier Morales, who is out through yellow card suspension after his harried approach to last match; as such, Luis Gil is widely tipped to take his spot in the lineup. This leaves a gap in the midfield where Gil would normally ply his trade, with his normal right-sided spot up for grabs.
But Sebastian Velasquez, who has sometimes been preferred there, doesn't seem to have travelled after potentially suffering a concussion earlier in the week (the abundance of caution being a positive thing, no doubt). This leaves Khari Stephenson and Cole Grossman as the two options there, and at the very least, it's difficult to ignore Grossman's goalscoring feat at Portland in a wild 3-3 draw.
Stephenson would bring a bit of calm and steadiness to the midfield, which may be a very good thing against a side that will press from the word "go." Will Johnson is the biggest piece of that puzzle, and his central approach is unlike what we saw in Salt Lake during his many years here. Surely the match is improved by his presence, but it doesn't render things easier for Real Salt Lake.
Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborio are all near-certain in their involvement after returning from international duty; Beckerman played 90 minutes during the midweek, and Saborio came off the bench to play nearly 45 minutes. Rimando didn't play. But all three should start, all the same.
With a midfield of Beckerman, Grabavoy, Stephenson and Gil, RSL would be setting themselves on a strong platform for success; the ability of the deeper three to remain calm despite intense pressure will be essential. Don't expect a side that sits back, of course, but if there was ever a chance to see beautiful one-touch football from Real Salt Lake, this is it.
Defensively, one would expect Chris Schuler to continue in the starting lineup, which comes as a slight blow to Carlos Salcedo, but perhaps a lesson in the same breath. Salcedo, for all his potential and even immediate value, lacks the communication Schuler has developed. This isn't to say he's quiet by any means, but Schuler has gone from a quiet, get-his-job-done defender to one really directing everything in front of him. Between the two, defensive ability might approach sixes, but defensive leadership - especially important in a strong attacking side - is something so often at a premium.
Saborio may well start alongside Findley, who will surely look to do more with his chance this time than he was able to do in our last match, when Abdoulie Mansally was sent off early on for a highly rash challenge. Plata and Olmes Garcia are a good late-game option, and we've seen the most success from them when their job was not wearing down the opponent but capitalizing on their weakened state.